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The dangerous country

The first time I went to see “Pan’s Labyrinth” I was blown away. This was one of the true dark fairy tales, the ones that ruled my European childhood. That faun was no tame creature who came to perch on Disney’s sweet porch. This was the elemental creature in whom I could, I would, I did (without question when I was very young) believe. This was power and awe and fear ripped from the heart and the spirit and ancestral memories.

This was the tale where the happy ending comes at a great price, and is not always what you think it should be – and for some there is no happy ending at all. Mistakes are made, and they have real consequences. Mystical creatures walk the night, but sometimes the monsters wear a human skin and it isn’t easy to tell them apart from the rest of us.

We watched the movie again the other night on TV. I wept, again – swept up and rapt in it, and realizing how fundamentally dualistic my viewing of this particular movie is.

There’s the adult part of me, who revels in the story – the drama, the tragedy, the sacrifices, and the power of vengeance. That instant at the end of the movie where the unholy Captain begins, “Tell my son…” and Mercedes interrupts flatly with, “No. He will never even know your name” still gives me the shivers – it is the ultimate punishment, and even death comes a pale and distant second after it. That’s death of the spirit, death of your future and everything that you might have done to play a part in it, and the death of your physical body in the face of that seems… almost irrelevant. The people who wrote this story understood this viscerally, and they told the story brilliantly. And there are other little touches, storytelling details, things that I, as a grown-up and as a professional storyteller and dream-spinner myself, am now able to discern, and appreciate, and admire.

And then there’s the child, born into the legacy of those dark European woods and their ancient shadows. The child who absolutely accepts the dark magic of the other world. The child who knows that there are narrow passages filled with oozing mud underneath ancient trees kept from thriving by monsters who lurk in their roots. The child who knows that a mandrake root can cry like a newborn, or shriek with human agony when tossed onto the fire. The child whom this movie takes by the hand and leads away into the enchanted forest, the child who doesn’t care if she EVER gets back home because there is so much magic in the air around her, who is suddenly aware the chittering sound of something which might be a real fairy, the scary kind with the power to grant wishes and to take dreams away — and the child doesn’t know which idea is scarier.

Both the child who believes and the adult who admires step into this movie and allow it to take me. This is a movie that’s projected straight onto my heart.

It makes the grown-up pause in the admiration, long enough to remember the awe and innocence of the dangerous country where only children can freely go – because the child cannot conceive of the thousand ways it can hurt her. The tragedy is that only there is the antidote to the poisons found there … but by the time you understand the poison and learn what kind of antidote you might need you have left childhood, the dangerous country, behind. And the very worst of the poisons might be that knowledge itself – that you’ve “grown up”, that you’ve understood, and that understanding has barred your way back to the Enchanted Forest forever more.

Or, perhaps, until a movie such as this comes a long, a precarious, perilous bridge between the grown-up world and the child’s, and some of us may cross back over for a brief while, just a moment, just a taste of the memory of it before we are herded back into our own skin by stern-faced fauns, who then turn away and melt that fearsome visage into a smile from the heart as they hold out their hand to a real child with a real right to be there.

And those of us who had the chance to go back, however briefly, find ourselves weeping quietly at the end, both at the sad ending of a beautiful fairy tale and at the fact that we can remember the taste of our tears, and it’s the taste of long ago and far away, of the dangerous country where we ourselves were once children, and believed.

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About AlmaAlexander

I am a novelist, short story writer and anthologist.

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